As more and more schools are adopting the use of digital content to support their online and blended programs, schools and districts are raising the selection and implementation of an appropriate learning management system/platform (LMS) as a top priority. During the 2019-20 school year, Michigan Virtual evaluated, selected, and implemented a new learning management system through which the majority of its online student courses are delivered. The Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) documented this process and is sharing the experience with schools and districts within and beyond Michigan that are considering the adoption of a new LMS.
Michigan Virtual investigated best practices associated with identifying and evaluating learning management systems/platforms that can meet the customized needs of schools and districts. In addition, Michigan Virtual collected data from research, literature, and practical experiences from schools and districts within and beyond the state of Michigan to understand the challenges and opportunities experienced regarding the implementation and maintenance of such systems/platforms.
When considering the general features and characteristics that schools should look for when selecting and evaluating an LMS, organizations such as Canvas (2019), itsLearning (2019), Lambda Solutions (2019), Moodle (Gill, 2019), and the eLearning Industry (Pappas, 2014) indicate there are several factors that should be taken into consideration:
- Alignment: Make sure to consider alignment to your district’s goals, now and in the future.
- Total costs: Are there hidden costs or costs you will incur only down the road?
- Reliability of the platform: Ask for evidence of uptime.
- Support: How much training and support will you get and at what cost? Will you have access to live support or be simply given an email address?
- Simplicity: How easy is the platform to navigate? How intuitive is it for a new user?
- References: What have other customers reported about the LMS?
- Testing: Make sure that you have the ability to test and interact with the platform prior to committing to a purchase.
- Reporting: Do the reports that can be generated give you the information you need?
When considering the general features and characteristics schools should look for when selecting and evaluating an LMS, the eLearning Industry suggests that you should make sure to not only consider alignment to your district’s goals, now and in the future, but also take into consideration the needs of your audience as you consider different options (Pappas, 2014). Speaking of audience needs, both Moodle and ItsLearning emphasize that an LMS needs to be easy to use and quick to master (Gill, 2019; itsLearning, 2019). Busy educators and new users will be slow to adopt or avoid using the platform altogether if it is not intuitive.
As you begin to consider various LMS options, Lambda Solutions (2019) emphasizes the need to consider the total cost of the platform.
- Proprietary systems will have licensing costs as well as other additional costs, such as upgrading and maintaining the system.
- On the other hand, with open source systems, such as Moodle, Open edX, Totara Learn, and Canvas, even though the software itself can be obtained at no cost, there are costs to hosting and optimizing the software even though it is maintained, modified, and enhanced by users in the global community.
- Districts may also want to consider the software-as-a-service (SasS) model in the cloud to get started without the expenses of a full-scale commitment. Cloud hosting can reduce initial capital costs and provide savings over time.
Don’t forget to consider seemingly hidden costs or costs that you will only incur down the road after the initial purchase.
As you think ahead and consider the bigger picture in terms of costs, make sure to ask each LMS provider you are considering for evidence of reliability, references, as well as what support they provide. Both Canvas (2019) and Lambda Solutions (2019) emphasize the importance of a reliable provider that can guarantee fast response rate times. These organizations also state that an uptime guarantee of 99.5% or higher, with little or no exceptions for maintenance, is possible. Also, make sure to consider how much training and support you will receive and at what cost. Will you have access to live support or simply be given an email address to contact? Don’t forget to also ask for references to ensure that what customers are reporting about the LMS is consistent with what the provider is stating they will deliver.
And finally, make sure that you have the ability to test and interact with the platform as you evaluate your options. The eLearning Industry (Pappas, 2014) suggests asking each LMS vendor for a live demonstration or a trial period so that you can see the platform in action. Lambda Solutions (2019) explains that most vendors will provide a “sandbox” for you to complete your own testing, run reports, and interact with the system. Do the reports that can be generated give you the information that you need? What reports are automatically generated for you?
You may also want to consider using an LMS Evaluation Tool in order to more easily evaluate, record, and compare features across several LMSs.
Case Study: Michigan Virtual
Michigan Virtual is a 501(c)(3) organization located in Lansing, Michigan. It was established by the State of Michigan in 1998 to expand the use of learning technologies with a focus on serving Michigan’s K-12 community with quality online instructional services. Today, Michigan Virtual offers online courses to students, professional development services and courses to teachers, and also runs MVLRI which is internationally-recognized for its research in online and blended learning.
For almost two decades, Michigan Virtual used a self-hosted LMS as its K-12 learning management system, which had served it well. However, in recent years most LMS providers have shifted their resources to cloud-based Software as a Solution (SaaS) models. A cloud-based SaaS solution improves uptime, offers continuously improving features that are not available in a self-hosted LMS, and increases operational efficiencies for the entire organization. Michigan Virtual knew it needed a SaaS LMS that was device-agnostic and offered existing integration with its student information system, Genius SIS. It also knew that an LMS change, even with the same provider’s SaaS version, would require a rebuild of all existing online courses in their current LMS in order to provide their teachers and students with a better experience and to allow customers flexibility in course offerings including start and end dates. It also saw an opportunity to reduce the cost of hosting two different LMSs—one for adult professional learners and one for students—as well as acquire a long-term partner solution.
First Steps—Deadline: October 25, 2019
For its professional learning courses, Michigan Virtual was already using the Desire to Learn (D2L) Brightspace LMS. In October 2019, D2L was brought in to demonstrate their K-12 LMS, Brightspace, to a cross-functional group within Michigan Virtual to gain a better perspective of it as an option for its student learning courses. Though the demonstration showed it to be a viable option, the notable differences between what Michigan Virtual wanted out of an LMS to serve its student population varied enough from the key features that were used in selecting Brightspace for its adult population. Therefore, it was decided that the best course of action was to create a formal team and issue a request for proposals.
Statement of Work
The team tasked with carrying out this endeavor began their work in October 2019 with an aggressive deadline of implementation by August 1, 2020. The project manager began by drafting a statement of work (SOW) to help define the plan and ensure the successful execution of the project. The SOW outlined the project description, objectives, a timeline of deliverables and dates, planned personnel, success factors, key assumptions, and constraints.
As the SOW came together, the project manager and the identified team leads began to finalize their teams and make sure that roles and responsibilities were clearly defined. To make sure that departments not only had proper representation, but that team members weren’t involved in meetings unnecessarily, a Core Team, an Advisory Team, and an Extended Team were created.
The Core Team was made up of nine members including an executive sponsor, co-team leads, a project manager, and five subject matter experts.
- The executive sponsor authorized the work, performed contracting and negotiations, provided feedback on progress and barriers to the team, and gave final approval of risk mitigation implementation.
- The co-team leads collaborated with the sponsor, communicated progress to the organization, functioned as decision-makers on day-to-day tactical decisions during the project, and ensured that identified results were delivered according to identified deliverables and the timeline.
- The project manager contributed to deliverables development, overall project direction, and ensured effective project execution; facilitated project collaboration and communication; documented key decisions and guiding principles; managed and escalated issues and risk; created documentation; and managed project closing activities.
- The subject matter experts provided input on key deliverables, outcomes, and timing from the course catalog and vendor management perspective, instructional perspective, and technology and data integrations perspective; performed the work of the project and produced the deliverables; and communicated with functional units to ensure needed awareness of project work.
The Advisory Team included 14 members. These stakeholders provided just-in-time specialized information or support to the Core Team from their area of expertise, advised to support informed decisions, maintained awareness of the progress in the project, participated in mid- and end-project reviews, and stood in for core team members if they were ever unable to participate.
The Extended Team’s main purpose was to assist in the testing and provisioning of course content for the new LMS. The team of 15 stakeholders provided support in the testing and migration process, communicated findings according to processes developed, maintained awareness of the progress in the project, and participated in mid- and end-project reviews.
Defining and Prioritizing Requirements
With the project outlined and teams assembled, Michigan Virtual set out to define and then prioritize the general features and characteristics it felt were important to consider when evaluating each possible LMS solution. The team gathered these solution requirements into an LMS requirements spreadsheet that was organized by category, feature, and criticality (for example, “must-have” or “nice to have”). The team then prioritized these requirements to assist them when rating vendors’ proposals, making sure to take into consideration the goals of the organization, both now and in the future.
Issuing the Request for Proposal
At the same time and with guidance from the team, the project manager put together the request for proposal (RFP) which was posted on the Michigan Virtual website on October 25, 2019. The RFP included a list of important dates pertinent to the LMS vetting and selection process, a detailed description of the request, the submission process and requirements, and the selection process to be used to determine the successful solution. In the RFP, Michigan Virtual explained that while it reached out to secure responses from pre-identified vendors, consideration may be given to others, but it was not guaranteed. It also indicated that only vendors who have functional integrations with their LMS to Genius SIS would be considered.
The team did post an amendment to the timeline, which mainly indicated an earlier date of presenting an award notice to the vendors (December 16, 2019, instead of late January/early February 2020). This timeline adjustment would give the vendor and the team more time for setup and testing prior to the target date of February 29, 2020, at which time the pilot environment would be launched and made available to students.
LMS Selection—Deadline: December 16, 2019
Four LMS providers and other interested vendors were invited to respond to the Michigan Virtual RFP with a letter of intent and non-disclosure agreement (NDA) due by November 1, 2019. While formal written proposals weren’t due until November 15, 2019, the letter of intent allowed Michigan Virtual to pre-screen on price, WCAG 2.0 AA satisfaction, and other factors. The two-way NDA afforded early LMS sandbox access and the exploration of the vendors’ LMSs so that high-level testing of requirements could be completed by members of the selection team.
As part of their proposals, vendors were asked to complete a Technical, Functional, System, and User Requirements spreadsheet with ratings and notes. The spreadsheet, which was organized by categories, listed and described approximately 100 LMS features that were most important to the Michigan Virtual team. Vendors were asked to rate each feature and provide a narrative to explain each rating. The LMS selection team used this spreadsheet to identify which features each vendor could or could not customize, which features were on the roadmap to be released in the next year, and which features would be delivered by a third-party vendor.
Vendors were also asked to complete a Cost Proposal Matrix indicating both non-recurring and recurring costs. For the non-recurring costs, such as startup costs, data migration, and training, vendors were asked to specify the price if Michigan Virtual did the maximum amount of work for the conversion or if the vendor performed this work. For the recurring costs such as software, licensing, hosting, maintenance and support, training, and yearly recurring costs, vendors were asked to specify the cost in years one, two, and three. This matrix provided Michigan Virtual with a clearer picture of total costs for each vendor.
Selection of Finalists
By November 15, 2019, all four vendors had submitted LMS proposals. The LMS selection team finished their initial sandbox reviews and analysis of the proposals and selected two finalists to continue to the next step.
Over the next month, sandbox testing continued for the two finalist vendors, and Michigan Virtual’s LMS selection team began to conduct vendor reference checks. Full testing and vendor demonstrations were completed for both finalist vendors. Feedback from testers was incorporated into the scoring sheets, and the five voting team members ranked their preferred vendor based upon the criteria set forth in the RFP:
- The fit between the vendor’s experience and capabilities and Michigan Virtual’s needs
- Experience serving other organizations
- Level and methods of satisfying the requirements
- Effectiveness of planned implementation approach
- Competitiveness and value delivered in proportion to fees proposed
- Quality of references
After evaluating the two finalists, team members believed both LMS options were viable, but there was a split as to which was the preferred option. In the end, executive leadership made the decision to award Desire2Learn (D2L) and their K-12 Brightspace LMS the work. Examples of factors that put D2L over the top in the final decision-making process included a) the determination that both platforms would serve students, schools, the organization well; b) that the existing working relationship with D2L had been productive and this would allow the organization to concentrate its efforts into a single platform across both its student and professional learning offerings, leading issues of scale and reduced complexity; and c) the Brightspace system was viewed as providing greater feature control as part of the native system whereas the other finalist seemed to leverage third-party integrations to a larger extent, and a greater level of comfort that the D2L implementation plan was achievable within the tight timeline that Michigan Virtual had set for the migration. By December 30, 2019, contracting was completed and the implementation framework was created.
LMS Implementation—Deadline: August 7, 2020
Internal and External Communication
After announcing the decision to their staff, the Michigan Virtual team published the K-12 Brightspace Implementation Google Site it had been preparing. This site shared information about the teams including their roles, responsibilities, and strengths; a link to the K-12 Brightspace Q & A; and a link to the topics and recordings of the LMS Sneak Peeks.
Sneak Peeks were 25-minute sessions held every other week as a way for the Michigan Virtual LMS implementation team to demonstrate and share the exciting features and changes of the new K-12 LMS with internal staff. It also provided an opportunity for both teachers and staff to ask questions and express concerns. These sessions were well-attended and covered topics such as instructor view vs. student view, discussion boards, quizzes, the Quick Eval tool, the mentor view, standard or default course design parameters adopted during the migration, rebuilding of content and assessments, and the announcements tool.
As a means to provide support documentation to all of their users (including students, guardians, mentors, professionals, and affiliation users), over the years, Michigan Virtual has created an extensive collection of Knowledge Base (KB) articles. Throughout the LMS implementation process, members of the team planned and wrote many additional K-12 Brightspace KB articles specific to students, affiliation users, and mentors.
It was important for the LMS implementation team to coordinate early on with D2L and put plans into place for training instructors, instructional designers, and system administrators. Initial full-time instructor training was split up into four different sessions, and instructors were split into two different cohorts. Instructor training for cohort one was held on February 18, 2020, and February 24, 2020; training for cohort two was held on February 27, 2020, and March 2, 2020; and training for system administrators was held on March 11-12, 2020.
Brightspace training of Michigan Virtual instructors continued from May 11, 2020, through August 7, 2020, and included components for both part-time and full-time instructors via an instructor training course. With all instructors trained by August 7, 2020, they were ready for the fall launch of the LMS on August 8, 2020. Training also took place for Michigan Virtual’s Customer Care and Sales teams.
LMS Set-up and Configuration
In January 2020, after investigating and exploring a few Brightspace environments, the team determined the K-12 environment that would work best for their student learners. While the team waited for delivery of this LMS environment from D2L, work was initiated to draft the LMS homepage and widgets, and a custom homepage widget was created. Course settings as well as gradebook settings were tested and reviewed in the Demo and Professional Brightspace instances. Once the new environment was delivered on February 4, 2020, the team began extensive work establishing initial systems configurations as well as initial user roles and permissions for those taking part in the course migration work. The team also determined configuration variables to establish default assessment settings, variations in the user interface based upon user roles, as well as display and calculation settings for the LMS gradebook. There was a sizable amount of work that took place to set-up and configure the LMS environment before any course development or course migration could begin.
Course Migration and Course Set-up Work
Once the LMS environment was set up and configured, the team needed to hit the ground running in terms of migrating their courses from their self-hosted LMS over to Brightspace, including those courses that Michigan Virtual designed themselves as well as the third-party vendor courses which are hosted in Michigan Virtual’s LMS. Migration of these approximately 250 courses proved to be a time-consuming and labor-intensive process which required establishing configuration variables and default settings to be applied by system administrators and instructional designers; designing a course template; staging individual development course shells; some combination of importing, copying, or rebuilding content and assessments to new course shells; testing the content and assessments from student and instructor roles; conducting quality assurance vetting to verify the intended application of desired course and LMS tool settings; troubleshooting and resolving issues reported by testers; more testing; and creating master course shells from which individual course sections can be copied each academic term throughout the school calendar year.
Course migration work was prioritized based on which courses were needed for the two different pilots—three courses for the 2020 Trimester 3 pilot and 34 courses for the 2020 summer pilot—and which courses needed to be ready for the fall 2020 and spring 2021 terms. The course migration work for Michigan Virtual courses was mainly completed internally by the Michigan Virtual Instructional Product Development (iPD) team, Learning Services-Student team, and Learning Applications team; however, some of the work was contracted out to additional course developers.
This first phase of this work took place in January and February 2020 and entailed:
- testing of content copying to new courses
- course developer contracting
- providing course vendors with course shells
- finalizing the master course template shell
- reviewing and refining the course migration process
- and finalizing blueprints for the first iteration of course migration.
In February 2020, the first three courses that were needed for the Trimester 3 pilot were created. In March 2020, the second phase of the course migration process began. The LMS implementation team measured progress of the 233 total courses (both Michigan Virtual courses and vendor courses) by tracking weekly completion of the following four major course migration milestones:
- Courses staged
- Content built
- Content reviewed
- Master created (which signals completion for that course)
By the end of March 2020, the course migration teams realized a cadence in their content migration work. When the course content was ready to be reviewed and tested, much of this work was done by Michigan Virtual instructors (both full-time and part-time instructors). The implementation team created video tutorials for instructors assigned to course testing, and a process was created for indicating, escalating, tracking, and resolving issues as they arose at any point throughout the course migration or course testing processes.
During the week of July 24, 2020, the course migration team began course copying for fall for those courses needed during Semester 1, Trimester 1, and Trimester 2. Course migration of all courses, including the final set up of courses to be ready for student access, was completed by July 31, 2020.
Challenges in the LMS Implementation Process
The LMS implementation team experienced many challenges throughout this process, which was to be expected. As they arose initially, issues and challenges were tracked in a Google Sheet by categories such as issue type, status, reporter, owner, and specific comments. As issues were resolved, they were moved to a “closed/canceled” tab on the spreadsheet to track the history. As the quantity and frequency of reported issues escalated, the implementation team adopted the use of a reporting form within their project and task management software, Wrike, which provided the report as a task initially assigned to designated members. The designated members could then verify the reported issue, prioritize the work, delegate the assignment to others in the organization, track related communications, and update the status of the task through completion or cancellation/rejection.
For example, one of the challenges that the team faced had to do with a “force completion” feature that was offered in Michigan Virtual’s previous LMS. This feature helped to maintain the integrity of tests and quizzes, preventing students from navigating away from their testing window. While a “force completion” feature wasn’t an option offered by Brightspace, a decision was made to implement time limits during tests and quizzes to accomplish a similar outcome. Adjustments needed to be made to quiz and test settings as well as gradebook settings and several other general quiz issues.
In addition, there were issues with importing course content from their self-hosted LMS, including the import of images in quiz answers, quizzes containing unique item types that lacked a one-to-one equivalent in the new LMS, or quizzes originally designed with HTML and CSS styling that overrode the default fonts and styles otherwise applied by Brightspace during import processes. Often, the Michigan Virtual implementation team determined that the most expedient solution required creativity and altering the design of course components during the rebuild process, though at times the team relied upon submission of support cases to dedicated personnel at D2L.
It was also deemed necessary to adopt an anti-plagiarism tool to replace the tool provided within Michigan Virtual’s previous LMS. Two options provided via third-party integrations were considered and evaluated. After viewing demonstrations, exploring testing, and reviewing proposals, the team decided to move forward with Turnitin. With contracting completed and training sessions scheduled, Turnitin was implemented in courses during the summer 2020 pilot.
What Made the Implementation Process Easier
While the LMS implementation team did experience their fair share of challenges during this process, there were some aspects of the work that actually made the transition easier for the team. For example, all of the work Michigan Virtual did to produce standardized class experiences across their courses made the migration of these courses into the new LMS easier. In addition, the team had also completed work to build content into CourseArc, a content authoring tool that integrates with the LMS via Learning Tool Interoperability (LTI), so that the content was more portable during the migration.
A consistent cadence of meetings allowed for frequent opportunities to share discoveries, clarify challenges, and seek solutions among those leading teams of personnel involved in executing assigned tasks. This cadence also facilitated the ability of team members to pose questions and seek input and advice from individuals possessing disparate, but relevant experience. The team also benefited from the designation of a single channel (the reporting form within their project and task management software, Wrike, described above) through which all those involved could report issues and have them auto-assigned to specific staff to begin the process of validating, troubleshooting, or reassigning work required to resolve the reported issues. Additionally, the team’s adoption of a clear delineation of decision-making and consultative roles allowed for clarity in necessary communication channels and provided purpose to meeting objectives based on the composition of those in attendance.
Another aspect that made this implementation process go more smoothly was changing the “We can’t” or “It can’t” conversations into “What would it take?”, “What resources can help make this happen?”, or “Can we make the change over time?” conversations. The shift of the team’s mindset facilitated a smoother process.
2020 Brightspace Pilots
Trimester 3 Pilot: February 29 — June 12, 2020
On February 29, 2020, the Trimester 3 pilot kicked off very smoothly with 43 students and 20 mentors. The number of participating students rose to 61 by the close of the enrollment period on April 10, 2020. The pilot consisted of three courses—American Sign Language 1A, Civics, and American Literature B—taught by three different full-time Michigan Virtual instructors. As part of the pilot, a mid-course survey and an end-of-course survey was pushed out onto the course homepage for both students and mentors. Feedback from these surveys was extremely valuable to the implementation team as they continued their work, making adjustments and improving the user experience.
Summer Pilot: June 8 — August 14, 2020
After the Trimester 3 pilot kicked off, the team’s focus shifted to readiness for the summer pilot, which began June 8 with 664 students. The summer pilot consisted of 33 elective Michigan Virtual courses including Business Ethics, Career Planning, Criminology, Digital Photography, and Economics of Personal Finance, as well as one vendor course. An end-of-course survey was pushed out again to students during the summer pilot. In addition to the mid-course and end-of-course surveys, the team completed a mid-project review with internal participants and D2L. Feedback was analyzed to see where improvements in the implementation process could be made.
Fall Launch—August 7, 2020
The Michigan Virtual implementation team planned for and tested within the mentor role, which Brightspace calls the “auditor role.” In addition, a communication plan and a flexible scheduling plan were completed in early June 2020, resulting in the launch of a landing page to communicate LMS and flexible scheduling updates to customers.
In preparation to launch the LMS for the fall in early August, the team continued their work to finish the migration of all courses to Brightspace. This work included consulting on Michigan Virtual content, adding vendor content, and testing, as well as the setup, testing, and creation of master course shells. As mentioned above, this work was completed by July 24 so that the team could begin course copying for fall for those courses required for Semester 1, Trimester 1, and Trimester 2.
As course testing continued and issues were reported, the Michigan Virtual implementation team and iPD team remained persistent in their efforts to address these issues and determine solutions to make sure courses are functioning properly. As of the close of business July 16, 2020, the team’s course migration progress was shown in the table below:
Table 1. Michigan Virtual’s Course Migration Progress as of July 16, 2020
|Course content migration phases||Michigan Virtual courses (summer & fall)||Vendor courses (summer & fall)||Total courses migrated||% of total courses migrated (233*)|
Other upcoming events and milestones include:
- September 30, 2020: Sunset the legacy LMS
- October 30, 2020: Course conversion will be completed
It will be important for the team to continue to dedicate time and effort to fixing and updating courses with the launch of the fall semester. While the team has done its best to prepare the courses, more will be learned as students use the system, and it is expected that courses will continue to need attention, particularly during their initial offerings.
During the transition to the new LMS and after it was launched, the following success factors and measurement goals were outlined as shown below:
- 80% Customer satisfaction
- 80% Instructors are highly confident (post-training)
- 99.9% System uptime
- 80% Internal user satisfaction
- 90% Genius SIS functionality
Implications for Schools
Advice and Lessons Learned
Prior to any vendor product demonstration, make sure that a core team is formed, roles are clear, and the project development phase is completed including defining the problem, the constraints, and the requirements of the project. Organizations indicate that when evaluating and selecting an LMS, the first crucial step is to assemble a diverse team made up of representatives from all stakeholder groups impacted by the LMS implementation. This will help ensure that the selected product meets the needs of all stakeholders and will also help to earn stakeholders’ buy-in and support throughout the process. When choosing key stakeholders, Lambda Solutions (2019) suggests you consider including end-users, administrators, instructional designers, managers, and a representative from HR, your IT/IS department, and your marketing department.
Make sure to consider the vision of the school district or organization. It is important to consider the bigger picture and the reasons behind why you are doing this work and what you want learning to look like. Doing so may help you identify and perhaps break away from existing assumptions or ways of doing things that may be holding a school back.
Michigan Virtual’s work towards selecting a new LMS began with the recognition that it could be better serving students. The initial demonstration of the K-12 Brightspace LMS followed. However, at this point, a team had not been formed, roles were not clear, the problem and constraints were not defined, nor had requirements been defined. In hindsight, this put some future core team members on the defensive, especially as some had a preference for another LMS or at least to explore the possibilities that may be realized by exploring other LMS providers. While the intent of this demonstration was to avoid the cost and time of issuing an RFP, the trust costs were high and the team only came together in agreement when executive leadership shared the rationale for the LMS decision that was made.
In order to make the selection and implementation process as smooth as possible, take the time to assemble a team made up of competent and highly skilled individuals who are knowledgeable in all of the necessary areas. If you don’t have these people in-house, give yourself more time. Michigan Virtual’s implementation team mapped out this process. The team prioritized work, thoughtfully determined interdependent pieces, and came up with contingency plans. Due to the tight timeline, in the beginning, the team felt like it was an impossible feat to get this LMS fully up and running by August 2020. But as team members expressed concerns and barriers were removed, belief began to build. Attitudes changed as departments stepped up and helped one another. Don’t underestimate the value of assembling the right people to complete this work.
Including someone with a fresh perspective can be a critical component of a successful team. While it is crucial to have highly skilled individuals, knowledgeable in all necessary areas, on your team, these individuals may have developed habits or ways of solving a problem that only made sense in the old system. This may lead to a tendency to want to solve issues the same way in a new system. This can be a difficult mindset to overcome—to free people to think more openly, including why certain processes exist in the first place. Many times, it takes someone who is not as familiar with existing processes to point out new ways of seeing challenges as well as opportunities.
Once you’ve assembled your team, make note of what is and isn’t working. What are the pain points and limitations of your current LMS or lack thereof? Define the goals of your school district or organization and make sure to plan for the future. What LMS features and functionalities are critical in supporting your goals and vision for the future and what features are “nice to have”?
The added value and importance of having a good project manager to lead this highly skilled team you have just assembled are of utmost importance. A good project manager puts measures in place that allow the team to complete their work, keeps the team focused, and is willing to ask the tough questions. A good project manager will also help you identify gaps and point out risks. They will help you meet deadlines and keep the project on track. They will also keep the team encouraged and help to mitigate issues as they arise.
Prior to any vendor demonstrations, communicate roles and responsibilities clearly. Have a strategy to handle questions and manage time. A large group of participants was invited to Michigan Virtual’s initial D2L demonstration of the K-12 Brightspace without clear roles and a defined communication process. As a result, the demonstration could not be completed in the four hours allotted and went unfinished. In future vendor demonstrations, the roles of participants were made clear and a visual tool and a timekeeper were used for communicating the time allotted for each section covered in the demonstration. Additionally, during future demonstrations, questions were submitted and then prioritized via a monitored Google Document. All questions were answered, though some were answered asynchronously after the demonstration. This was found to be very effective and was an essential part of the successful vendor demonstrations with a large team.
When comparing features across multiple LMSs, you may want to take into consideration native capacity versus required third-party integrations. One of the challenges that the team found with the LMS comparison is that many providers said their systems could do just about anything. Some had native capacity built in to accomplish the desired task, but others said their systems could do it through third-party integration. That dynamic between what is native to the LMS versus what required third-party integration was a dynamic that the Michigan Virtual LMS selection team considered heavily.
Make sure to take into consideration the school district or organization’s strategy and goals for the future. A move to a new LMS should consider a time horizon of at least five years. The amount of work involved with switching is voluminous and also cost-prohibitive, so it is important to know the direction you want to head. One of Michigan Virtual’s long-term goals was to reduce the number of technology systems staff had to operate, an example of a short-term benefit. On the other hand, the longer-term perspective assisted conversations about perceptions of system shortfalls. The belief that some of these identified issues were more of a year one concern, but likely could be addressed in years 2-5, changed the perception of how big a problem was. Prior to executing a contract, Michigan Virtual identified some of its key heartburn issues and got agreement from D2L to collaborate and work toward solutions for them over the long term.
The LMS selection and implementation process is a lengthy one. According to itsLearning (2019), the LMS selection process should ideally begin two years before full implementation and requires significant planning in terms of assembling the implementation team, defining the organization’s LMS goals, conducting needs assessments, evaluating products, and choosing a solution.
There were several factors underlying Michigan Virtual’s decision to accelerate their timeline to accomplish this work including the additional costs and inefficiencies of hosting two K-12 LMSs, needing to provide improved user experience, and the immediate need to provide schools with a more flexible enrollment schedule, which was not an option with their previous LMS provider.
Another factor behind expediting this process was that if Michigan Virtual remained self-hosted after performing a particular update of their legacy LMS required by October 2020, it would become unsupported by this previous LMS provider. Moving into an unsupported status was an unacceptable option for executive leadership; however, moving to the previous provider’s hosted SaaS instance of the LMS would entail migrating all of their courses to that new LMS environment. Therefore, if Michigan Virtual was faced with having to do this work, regardless of the provider, it was deemed time to look at other viable LMS products and vendors before committing to the work at hand. The timeline itself was driven by the need to have support for their LMS after October 1, 2020.
Make sure to allow some flexibility in your project timeline. Even if an LMS vendor has an integration process that seems like it should be smooth, migrating courses to a new LMS is often a messy process, and you will very likely run into some issues. Because the Michigan Virtual model required flexibility to accommodate unique offerings of all of the different types of courses offered from seven different course providers, this process was quite complicated. Authorization had to be given from each vendor to remove their course from the legacy LMS and move it to Brightspace. Most vendors insisted on course rebuilds. Expect that you will have some unanticipated issues along the way and afford your team some flexibility in that regard. While it is critical to work toward clearly articulated targets and milestones, your implementation team will benefit from adequate time and discretionary authority to make adjustments to priorities and pivot toward new solutions as issues are identified and various paths toward resolution explored.
D2L’s ability to configure a system in unique ways that Michigan Virtual needed was one of the major aspects that made their product and service stand out against other competitors who didn’t offer that flexibility. Michigan Virtual has full-time teachers, lead teachers, part-time teachers, mentors, managers, and administrators—all who needed different permissions and specific access configurations. D2L offered significant flexibility in terms of the structure of these different roles and their permissions.
D2L also built flexibility into their system and into their structure in many aspects, which appealed to Michigan Virtual as they work with so many different schools that need information to be submitted or accessed in unique ways. D2L offered flexibility in terms of how to access different grading options and ways to access content. Customizations called “widgets” could be purchased, which would allow Michigan Virtual to expand the functionality of available content on their homepage to suit specific organizational and course needs.
Michigan Virtual believed the Brightspace solution would keep their organization competitive, offering an enhanced experience for their students and customers. With the Brightspace LMS, Michigan Virtual customers would receive improved web accessibility and mobile device friendliness. Common with SaaS LMS versions, D2L offers continuous delivery of monthly updates, eliminating downtime of the system, as well as improved uptime. Additionally, as new features are released, Michigan Virtual will not be forced to adopt them right away. Newly released features can be placed into a sandbox for further exploration and testing, which can provide time for training to be developed. Then, when there is a convenient training period, the new features can be released.
Increased efficiency was another attractive aspect of Michigan Virtual’s move to D2L. The Brightspace LMS affords efficiencies for teachers in terms of communication and automation of some manual processes, efficiencies for students in terms of course access and information (especially if students have more than one course), and internal efficiencies for Michigan Virtual. Managing only one system means some of the software and development work of the Michigan Virtual Technology Integrations Department can be streamlined and increases automation of many very necessary, but very time-consuming tasks.
Instead of managing two vendor relationships, only managing one for both sides of their organization makes that relationship much more impactful. The relationship between Michigan Virtual and D2L represents a much bigger investment and a stronger partnership where each can benefit from the other’s mutual expertise.
Whether you are considering implementing an LMS for the first time or transitioning to a new one, it is our hope that the information in this report helps you with your process in some way. While the LMS selection and implementation process requires a lot of planning and work, assembling a team that is well-organized and made up of talented, dedicated, and passionate people will make the work and the process possible. Take the time to discover what is most important to your school or organization as you begin the selection process. The right LMS could create increased efficiencies for your organization and provide exciting opportunities and a better experience for your students and customers. We hope that the challenges that Michigan Virtual LMS teams faced throughout the selection and implementation process, as well as the lessons learned, help to give you an informed place from which to start or from which to continue your work.
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